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THEN AND NOW: Elegant house was home to early pioneer

Now housing offices of M&K Company, residence at 159 Collier St. was built in 1855 for John McWatt

This ongoing series from Barrie Historical Archive curator Deb Exel shows old photos from the collection and one from the present day, as well as the story behind them.

159 Collier St.

It’s hard to not to turn your head at this striking building as you travel along a section of Collier Street that was once known as Charlotte Street.

It’s elegant, stately and imposing — a commanding presence in this historically important neighbourhood. Its former occupants were significant, as well.

This handsome home was built about 1855 for John McWatt, an early pioneer to this area. Born on Christmas Day 1811, in Nairn, Scotland, McWatt set out for Canada in 1832. He made his way to the village of Kempenfelt, staying with a fellow Scot, Capt. Robert Oliver, a half-pay officer with land holdings in Oro Township. The Olivers, at that time, were occupying a large log dwelling on the Shanty Bay property known as the Woodlands estate today. This was also about the same time Edward and Mary O’Brien were building their home in Shanty Bay. McWatt apparently worked on the Olivers’ Shanty Bay farm for some time, acquiring land near Dalston from Oliver.

Tired of farming, McWatt moved to Barrie in 1840, clerking for merchant, and Barrie’s first postmaster, Sidney Morehouse Sanford. McWatt purchased the business from Sanford the following year, becoming a store owner and postmaster. The wharf once belonging to early pioneer David Edgar was now McWatt’s Wharf. Good fortune continued: In 1842, John McWatt married Elizabeth Magner, of Toronto. The couple would have three girls: Grace, Mary and Elizabeth. The next year, McWatt was appointed the first county clerk, a position he held until 1852. An early record of the ‘notables of the town’ included “John McWatt, county clerk, storekeeper, postmaster, and ready for anything else you wanted doing, even, in the parson’s absence, to christening a baby or reading the burial service over a poor defunct.”

Tragedy struck when John’s wife, Elizabeth, died in 1848, after six years of marriage. The widower McWatt remarried Elizabeth Hall, daughter of Edward and Elizabeth Marks and 18 years his junior, one month following his wife’s death. The Marks were innkeepers. Their early venture was the Plough Inn, or Carney’s Inn, prior to building a new brick hotel on Dunlop Street, commonly known as Marks’ Hotel, or the Commercial Hotel. The hotel was leased about 1853 and renamed the Barrie Hotel.

McWatt resigned as county clerk in 1852. In 1856, he resigned as postmaster, moving to Collingwood to become the customs collector, selling his Dalston property, and the magnificent home at 159 Collier St.

McWatt became the first elected mayor of Collingwood in 1859. He was sent to Quebec to obtain a commitment that the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) would visit during his 1860 tour of Canada.

McWatt was dismissed as customs collector in 1866. One of the first acts of Premier George Brown was to make Collingwood an outport of Toronto, thus enabling him to remove McWatt from the position of customs collector in retaliation for previously organizing extreme disruption at an Allandale event, which prevented Brown from speaking. The McWatts returned to Barrie to run the Barrie Hotel, which we know today as the Queen’s Hotel.

In 1872, McWatt retired from innkeeping but stayed busy issuing marriage licences from his Mary Street home, “just four doors north of Elizabeth Street.” McWatt, justice of the peace for more than 50 years and a lieutenant-colonel of the North Riding of the Simcoe Reserve Militia for almost 30 years, died in his home in 1892 and was buried in Barrie Union Cemetery. Jenet Moore, McWatt’s Mary Street neighbour, had the desk of the first postmaster of Barrie in her home, Grey Gables, given to her by McWatt himself.

Our story started in Shanty Bay and it will end there.

McWatt’s youngest daughter, Elizabeth, married her first cousin, Daniel MacWatt, John’s nephew. (It’s believed he changed the spelling of his name at some point.) Daniel had been born in Nairn, Scotland, as well, in 1853, and made his way to New York in 1869, and then to Barrie in 1873, marrying Elizabeth in 1876. Daniel, a commission agent at the time of their marriage, began working with D’Alton McCarthy, passing the bar in 1881 and continuing at the McCarthy firm before becoming partner with Lount, Dickinson and MacWatt. He was appointed a Lambton County judge in 1899, and the family moved to Sarnia. Daniel and Elizabeth had two daughters: Mary and Jean.

Mary and Jean’s mother, Elizabeth, died in 1912 in Sarnia but was to be buried in Barrie, near her father, John McWatt. This did not happen. Mary acquired a deeded plot in the cemetery of St. Thomas Anglican Church in Shanty Bay. She proceeded to have a mausoleum designed and built to house her mother’s remains. The building was completed in 1914 and Elizabeth was laid to rest.

Jean married Aubrey Glover Poole the year before her mother died, and moved to Colorado. Mary, the elder daughter, married barrister and cricketer John Melville Laing in 1915 in Toronto. When John died at home in 1947, he was buried in the little mausoleum in Shanty Bay. Sadly, two years later, after a long illness, John’s poetry- and literature-loving wife, Mary MacWatt, joined him. After a funeral in her Toronto home, another service was conducted at St. Thomas church, followed by a committal service in the private mausoleum. When sister Jean died in the 1960s, she was the last to join her family in the Shanty Bay mausoleum. According to one record, in each corner of the building, on a raised pedestal, is a metal casket with a bronze plaque above it to signify who rests there.

Since neither of the sisters had children, it was the end of John McWatt’s descendants. The little building and its land was left to St. Thomas church. There’s a touching account that after Jean’s death, for a period of some years, the caretaker would be asked to open the mausoleum, light its fireplace and put out chairs for two cousins, probably Jean’s husband’s, who would arrive in Shanty Bay by train from the United States. The relatives would share a picnic basket, visit for a while, and then head back to their homes in Pennsylvania and Arizona.

John McWatt’s home at 159 Collier St. was later owned by other notables such as Maj. Joseph Rogers, who once worked in McWatt’s store and later lived at Roselawn; lumberman Thomas Cundle, for whom the village of Cundles was named; the brewing family of J.T. Joseph Anderton in 1890; and, later, about 1931, by furniture store owner John Smith’s son, Albert. A photo, taken in the 1940s from the backyard of the elegant Caldwell home next door, shows the front porch and second-floor balcony still intact on the McWatt home, the modern portico not yet added. In 1960, the property was transferred to the Christian Science Society, which owned it until recently, when MK & Company moved in and gave this impressive heritage building a fresh look.